Mr. Peabody & Sherman :: Back in the WABAC Machine
A genius talking dog adopting a boy as a single parent. It was an unconventional family that might have raised some eyebrows in 1959. Yet, this father and son tale of time travel became a popular staple with the "Rocky & Bullwinkle" show that ran from the same year till 1964.
More than half a century later, this beloved cartoon receives a twenty-first century update, with 3D computer animation by PDI DreamWorks, the studio that gave us the "Shrek," "Kung Fu Panda" and "Madagascar" movies.
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" (voiced by Ty Burrell of "Modern Family" and Max Charles respectively) takes the audience along for a wild ride to experience historically significant events like the French Revolution (Was Marie Antoinette’s quote ’Let them eat cake!’ totally taken out of context?), the Trojan War and Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of Mona Lisa. Part of the fun of the movie is also to see how the adventures of the father-son duo get fused into these events, and with tongue firmly in cheek, how they unknowingly played a part in shaping the course of history.
The film has opened in Europe and Mexico to warm reviews. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian UK reviews, "It takes a little while for the audience to get up to speed, but once this is achieved, there’s an awful lot of unexpected fun to be had, boasting zany adventures with various historical figures." Back in the U.S. where the characters are better known, The Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin says, "a humming tension is maintained here between retro design elements, child-friendly antics, and contemporary references aimed at grownups."
Behind this latest DreamWorks update is Director Rob Minkoff who is no stranger in making family-friendly films. One of the co-directors of the wildly popular "The Lion King" which spawned Elton John’s Oscar-winning song "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" Minkoff had gone on to direct two "Stuart Little" movies and even the live action Asian martial arts heavy "The Forbidden Kingdom."
Just like many stories behind Hollywood movies, the idea of a "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" movie took a long detour. The idea germinated some twelve years ago but with very few studios into making animated features at that time, studios have their own backlog of projects to pursue. Add that to the legal turmoil for Tiffany Ward, the daughter of Jay Ward who created the characters, to secure the rights to her father’s properties, and the question of timing and leadership of different studios, the odyssey finally had the backing of DreamWorks Animation.
Minkoff’s passion for the characters had been a strong driving force. "I felt like they (Mr. Peabody and Sherman) were great characters. There’s something interesting about them beyond what they just did in the show itself. So it was interesting to me to find out who they were when they were not going on the time traveling adventures."
It was this fervor to push for the film for over a decade that won over the support and trust of Ward. "I can tell that he’s going to be a great guardian to bring these characters to this century as well as taking them from the shorts to a theatrical movie. He did an incredible job," says Ward. "It’s got to be funny. The script has got to be funny and smart," insists Minkoff.
"We couldn’t really recreate exactly what was done then," adds Minkoff. "There was no way to do that, but we wanted to make sure that it felt like it was the same spirit. You know, sort of recognize who he is as a character. We didn’t want to change that, We weren’t going to say, he’s going to be different. We just sort of like, what he really was like in all the other dimensions."
In spite of the originating from a cartoon a good half-century ago, the theme of the movie feels strangely timely. To establish the back story of the reversed adoption of Sherman by the super intelligent dog Mr. Peabody, the dog has to prove to a social worker, Ms. Grunion (voiced by Allison Janney, "The West Wing," "Mom") who threatens to take the boy away, that he is a suitable parent. It is arduous not to draw a comparison between the social worker’s disgust about a beagle adopting a boy and the misguided belief by some that gay parents cannot be good role models for adopted children.
"It’s true the simplicity of the idea that reversed dog and his boy relationship that makes it kind of great and not like anything else," suggests Minkoff. "Kids hear that idea and go ’Woah! That’s cool. Wow, who thought of that!’ Even though it’s fifty years old, they don’t think of it being fifty years old, they just think that it’s a crazy idea."
"The show itself was so modern for its time," adds Producer Alex Schwartz. "Being an unconventional family, this science fiction component."
"The first consideration is the decision to make this contemporary," says Minkoff. "You might want to share something that you love as a kid but at the same time, sometimes those things, feel like a museum piece. That’s why you want to refresh it, some of those ideas in a new version. So you can’t help but contemporize it."
Casting Ty Burrell
Casting Ty Burrell to voice Mr. Peabody was apparently a decision made before "Modern Family" became popular. "We literally went through a list," shares Minkoff. "We had a whole long list of people. We cut materials from their other films and we put next to some of the original shorts. Out of the ones we saw, there were a couple that stood out to us, some better than others." The choice to cast Burrell as the talking dog was a vote of confidence to Minkoff and the cast that he was assembling. "Make a great movie. We don’t need a star actor to make this successful," Ward had said. At the same time, Burrell was encouraged to listen to the original to help develop his own version of Mr. Peabody.
Rounding up the main cast were Burrell’s "Modern Family" Ariel Winter as Penny Peterson, Sherman’s classmate Penny; Stephen Colbert in a hilarious scene-stealing take as Penny’s father Paul Peterson, with Leslie Mann who voiced his wife, Patty. Not to forget a great turn for Stanley Tucci to play Leonardo Da Vinci, the inventor and the painter as well.
Switching between making animation and live action movies, Minkoff compares directing an animated film to a constant conversation with crewmembers like the animators and the production design team. "It’s always about a concept, an idea, the process, the mechanics, the math, and a lot of stuff," he says.
"It only comes to life at the end. In a live action movie, you get the actors in the room, you can actually see the scene and you can film it right there. There it is, you have the dailies, you see if the scene has the energy. In animation, it usually is a very Dr. Frankenstein kind of process when you try to create life when there isn’t any life. It’s a lot like working in a laboratory. It’s a lot of theoretical analysis and ideas when you say when all these things come together, it’s all going to make sense.
"One of the great benefits of animation filmmaking though is that we put everything on a story reel, we cut it all together, we put all the dialogue, the sound effects, the music, and we watch it like a movie and say, does that work? Is that as good as it could be? Can it be better? Does this story point make sense? Can we fix that?
The next big thing?
"You’re doing that in the development and creation of the movie," Minkoff continued. "In a life action movie, if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. That means if it’s not in the script, you’ve a much harder time fixing it in the editing room. You can do it, but it’s much harder. In an animated movie, a lot happens at the storyboarding process when you’re figuring out what is what and you can respond to it."
With studios forever looking for the next big thing to launch a movie franchise, Minkoff logically links the possibility of future "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" movies to box office appeal. "You’re hoping to bring a character back because animation is a unique thing," says Minkoff. "If they are compelling enough, which I think they are in their original version, hopefully, people would go, I like these characters, I want more of them."
"Mr Peabody & Sherman" opens everywhere on March 7, 2014.
Watch the trailer to "Mr. Peabody and Sherman":